Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 10, March 2 to March 8 2008

Hebrews 2:1-4

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

If you have a Bible with you or near you, turn with me to the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 2, verses 1-4 as we are continuing this morning in a short series devoted to the first 3-4 chapters of this very helpful section of Scripture.

Now, in our previous studies we have seen that one of the underlying purposes of this letter is drift prevention. Because of persecution, because of false teaching floating around, and simply because it is the nature of fallen, sinful hearts to wander and drift - because of all these things, the people to whom this letter was originally written were in great danger of turning away from the Christian faith. And not just turning away, but going back to their former way of life, to the Judaism from which so many of them came.

The writer of Hebrews wants to put a stop to this. So, with that purpose in mind, he has composed a letter which intends to show the folly and danger of drifting away from Christ and returning to former things. In the first part of the letter, from chapter 1 through chapter 4, verse 13, we are shown that Christ, the Word of God and the Son of God, is superior to the prophets, to angels, even to Moses himself.

In the second main section, 4:14-10:18 - the case is made that Christ, God's mediator and our High Priest, is superior to the old, Aaronic priesthood, and is the fulfillment of every aspect of the OT sacrificial system.

In the third main section, 10:19 to the end of the letter, we are given a concentrated section of warnings and encouragements that flow from the things already said in the letter. However, while the bulk of the letter's warning and encouragements are found at the end, that is not the only place that we find them. Scattered throughout the letter, all along the way, there are places where the writer, having made some important statements, simply has to stop, right then and there, and press home some of the very important implications of what he has just said - almost as if he cannot help himself.

In Hebrews 2:1-4, we have reached one of those places. We have been shown how Christ is God's final and sufficient word and that he is not to be regarded as merely some sort of angel but is, in fact, high and exalted above the angels, infinitely superior to them, seated in the heavenly realms alongside God the Father Himself.

And now, having said that, having gathered together these majestic descriptions of Christ from the Old Testament Scriptures, the writer now feels compelled to say something about the implications of these things for his readers. In short, what he is saying to them here is: Because God has spoken through his amazing, exalted Son, we must, therefore, listen to him. The greatness of who he is demands our complete, un-distracted and undivided attention, and leads to a just retribution, if we do not pay attention to it.

That's where we're going this morning, before we head off on our journey, let's pray together.......

Father in heaven, as you have been so careful and concerned to reveal yourself clearly through your Son, would you now further attend to that by quickening lifeless spirits and stirring slumbering minds. As another brother has observed, just as we would pay great attention to the reading of a will that held out the promise of a great inheritance, how much more highly ought we to regard this moment where we hear, again and again, of the treasures that are to be found in your word and of the inheritance we have in your Son, Jesus Christ. Help us then, during this time together, to lean forward, and give our best attention to you, in Jesus' name, Amen.

(Read Hebrews 2:1-4)

The writer of Hebrews tells his readers - and himself as well - that they must pay closer attention to what they have heard. Within these verses we find at least three reasons why they ought to do this, which we'll look at in just a moment. However, before we can do that, we need to think, if only briefly, about one of the assumptions that lies behind this instruction to pay closer attention to what they have heard - namely, that they can. Now what do I mean by that?

Just as it would make no sense to tell people to make sure and follow the instructions on how to operate their DVD player if, in fact, no instructions had been given to them, so would it not make any sense for the writer of Hebrews to tell his readers to pay closer attention to what they had heard if, in fact, they did not have any means of doing that. But of course they did.

The word which God spoke through his Son, Jesus, was proclaimed and preached by his apostles whom he personally selected - including Paul. The authority and validity of their teachings as the founding apostles of the Church was confirmed and endorsed, as verse 4 tells us, by signs, wonders and miracles that accompanied and surrounded their ministry, and indeed, the whole time period in which they ministered. This identified them as being with Jesus - whose own ministry was accompanied by signs, wonders and miracles. By this means it was shown that they had divine approval and authority to continue advancing the Gospel in Jesus' name and, most importantly, to be the means by which God's spoken and lived word in Jesus, became God's written, revealed word that we know as the New Testament Scriptures.

Now, as we have seen, at the time that this letter was most likely written, probably between 46 and 69 AD, only a certain portion of the New Testament was currently available - perhaps one or two of the Gospels, some of Paul's letters, the letter of James, etc. But what they had was certainly sufficient as God was bringing about the completion of the inscripturation process.

The other thing to keep in mind is that even though they did not yet have a completed New Testament, they were very close to the actual time that Christ was here. As a result, they had among them many eyewitnesses and, as one commentator has said, "ear-witnesses" of the Lord Himself. They did not have Jesus among them, but they had Apostles and disciples among them - people who had walked with Jesus, talked to him, and who sat at his feet, listened to his teaching, and watched him perform miracles. And so, between those two things - the on-going testimony of eyewitnesses, and the growing body of recorded revelation at the hand of the apostles and their disciples - between these two things the people to whom Hebrews was written certainly had the means available to them to pay careful attention to what they had heard.

So, the instruction to "pay much closer attention" was a live one - it was do-able. But it was much more than just do-able, it was, advisable, for a number of different reasons.

The first reason that they ought to pay much closer attention to what they heard is something which was already mentioned in the introduction - and is signaled by the word which appears at the very beginning of verse 1, if you have the ESV, or as the seventh word of verse 1, if you have the NIV translation. The word is: "Therefore."

It is a cliché by now, but still worth repeating that whenever you see the word "therefore" you need to ask yourself what it is there for. The word - "therefore" - is like a flashing arrow that urges you to back up, to go back to something already said, or already written which gives the reasons for the conclusion the writer/speaker is now giving you.

In this case, the conclusion is, "Therefore, we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it." Therefore, seeing these things we need to back up and think about what has just been said. When we do, we recall that in the previous verses the writer has been highlighting the huge contrast between Jesus and the angels and, in so doing, has painted this amazing portrait of Jesus as the divine, sovereign, Creator God. This fact alone - the fact of who he is - apart from any other consideration means that we owe him our complete attention.

I am no golfer. I play on very rare occasions, usually for the amusement and encouragement of others, who actually can play and whose game looks a whole lot better when they play with me. So, if you think your game stinks, give me a call, we'll play a round together, and afterward I can guarantee you will have a whole new perspective on your game. I offer the same services for other sports such as Tennis, Hockey, and Ping Pong.

Now something I like to do is listen to books on tape when I am out in the car. It is a way of redeeming the time for me. Usually I listen to biographies. A couple years ago, on a whim, I checked out the audio recording of Jack Nicklaus' autobiography because, even though I cannot play golf very well, I find it interesting. Anyway, I am listening to the story of his life, and this amazing golfing career, and at one point he starts talking about what he believes are the essentials to a great golf swing. Now, as I said, I am no golfer, but I can tell you that when I got to that part of the tape, I sat up straight and turned the volume up a little louder.

Why? Because Jack Nicklaus - the great Jack Nicklaus - was about to speak with authority on the art of swinging a golf club. When somebody like that, who has that kind of authority, starts to talk about his area of expertise, you have to at least pay attention. You owe him that much, simply because of who he is, and what he has accomplished.

In a much more profound way, this is the dynamic that has resulted in the "therefore" of Hebrews 2:1. When God speaks through his Son - and a Son that is as amazing and exalted and powerful and authoritative as Jesus is - when someone like that - the greatest "someone" of all time speaks about anything, you need to pay attention, close attention to what he has to say because he knows what he's talking about.

A second reason that they ought to pay closer attention to what they have heard is because drifting away from it was a real possibility. And, just so you know, this is not a minor theme in this letter but is, in fact, a major theme of this letter, popping up all over the place. For example,

Heb 3:12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.

Heb 6:4 For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

Heb 10:35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.

Heb 13:9 Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefitted those devoted to them.

Now, Lord willing, we will, over time, have a chance to look at all of those verses in their proper context. However, for now, please note that the writer of Hebrews is not just playing semantic games when he talks about people falling away. He is not warning them about a danger that does not actually exist. He is warning them about a real danger and a real possibility. Notice that the writer includes himself in that possibility - "...we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it..."

And here's the thing about drift: it is a passive process. Drifting is not something that people pursue actively as much as it is something that people experience passively. You do not necessarily notice that it is happening, or to what degree it is happening, at least not right away.

Last year I had an opportunity to go sailing, as many of you know - and it was a terrific time. And I can remember on one day in particular we went to a place called the Two Dogs to do some snorkeling around this area that was really pretty and had lots of interesting rocks and reef. It was a fairly shallow place so that you had to be very careful getting in there and then, once you were in, you had to try and drop your anchor in between various rock formations and get it to hold fast in the sand, without getting entangled on all sorts of other things.

So, we managed to drop anchor in a good place and thought we were all set for some snorkeling. As we stood on the deck of the boat, we could see all around us all sorts of dark, threatening shapes, but we thought we were okay, even though there was not a lot of room for error.

Well, not long after that, some of us were in the water snorkeling around when we noticed that the hull of the boat seemed a bit closer to some of these rock formations than it had been before - in fact, within just a few feet of some pretty nasty edges. So, a few of us swam out in front of the boat and starting following the path of the chain which was attached to the anchor, in order to see whether it was still holding. Finally, after going about 50 yards in front, and then diving down to have a look, we could see the place where the anchor had first hit the sand, and then we could see this straight line where it was gradually being dragged back with the current so that the boat was slowly and imperceptibly drifting right into some rocks.

At that point, our captain very wisely and sensibly decided to remove all doubt, fired up the engine, pulled in the anchor and moved the boat to a safer location. Nothing disastrous had happened. But it was enough of a close call to press home to me, at least, how deceptive things could be, and how you could be drifting toward danger and not even know it - until it was too late. I shudder to think of what would have happened if we had not been paying close attention.

That is the very sort of thing that the writer of Hebrews is talking about in chapter 2. If the people to whom he is writing do not pay attention to what they have heard, if they are not making themselves constantly familiar with it, if they are not going back and checking things out according to it, if they are not actively applying themselves and being obedient to what they have received - then they will drift.

Because, again, that is the thing about drift. You do not actually have to do anything to be affected by it. Indeed, it is what happens when you are not doing anything. If you just sit there, if you just do nothing, then you will drift. It is like being on one of those moving sidewalks in a large airport, and facing the wrong direction. If you stand there, not moving, you would not stay in the same place. You will go backwards. In fact, if you want to stay in the same place, you are going to have to be moving forward, just to hold your ground. And if you want to make progress, then you have got to really pick up the pace.

It is the same sort of reality for the people of God. If they will not give care and attention and application to the things they have received and the things they have heard, then they will not remain as they are. They might think they are staying in the same place. Nevertheless, they are not and will, in fact, being going backward, drifting imperceptibly toward the rocks.

The writer of Hebrews warns them to pay closer attention to what they have heard, because drifting away was a real possibility. It was a real possibility for them, and it is a real possibility for God's gathered people [visible church] in every age. In fact, I will go farther than that and say that for a number of you in this room this morning - that dynamic of drift - is the best description, right now, of your spiritual state. You are not out there robbing banks, or lying, cheating, or stealing - not yet at least - but you are adrift. You are distracted. You are not really giving the things of God all that much attention. You are kidding yourself with your imagined sense of security and invulnerability. What you have not noticed, is that in the water all around you have suddenly appeared a number of dark, menacing shapes, with hard, un-forgiving edges.

Which leads to the third reason that the people being addressed here should pay closer attention to what they have heard. This third reason is quite naturally tied together with the previous one, and it is simply this: because those who neglect the great salvation that has come in Jesus will receive a just retribution, a deserved punishment. (See again, verses 2-3)

These verses make it clear why the writer of Hebrews is warning them so strongly about the danger of drifting away - because of what you will eventually drift into, because of where you will inevitably find yourself, one day, if the drift is not stopped.

In order to make this point, the writer very quickly and succinctly here draws up a comparison to what happened in the Old Testament and the current circumstances of his readers. In verse 2 he talks about "the message declared by angels" which we saw last week was a reference to the law which came through Moses, and by the agency of angels. So, the writer is referencing the Old Testament here and says that the message that was received then was a reliable one and, as a result, every rejection of that message, every transgression of it or disobedience against it was justly punished by a justifiably offended Holy God.

The writer wants his readers to compare that situation to their own where they have received - not a message that was declared by mere angels - but rather a message that was declared by the Lord, as verse 3 tells us. This message too was a reliable message, attested by eyewitnesses and confirmed by the Holy Spirit through various signs and wonders. And so, if those who received the former message through angels and neglected it received the wrath of God, how much more liable to God's wrath will be those who have received the message of his own Son, and the salvation he wrought - and yet still neglect it? Do they imagine that they will somehow escape?

And the silent, but sure answer is: No, they should not. Because they would not escape.

Let me say it again. There is real danger here. Genuine danger. As Leon Morris says, "This epistle leaves us in no doubt but that those who are saved, are saved from a sure and genuine peril. Christ's saving work is not a piece of emotional pageantry, rescuing men from nothing in particular." And if I can borrow Dr Morris' words, I would say that the dangers being spoken of here are not emotional pageantry, warning people away from imaginary trouble.

Now some of you may be sitting there thinking about how all of this relates to you and saying to yourself, "Self, you don't need to worry about these things. You have got assurance of your salvation. You have got a lock on this thing. You are going to be safe no matter what."

If that is you, read this passage again. Who is the author of Hebrews writing to? The people of God. The gathered communities of God's people. He is talking TO and ABOUT professing Christians here. What am I saying then? Am I saying that there is no such thing as assurance of one's salvation? No, I am not saying that. Am I denying the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints here - that all of those who are truly His will persevere with him, to the end? No, I am not denying any of that. Am I promoting some sort of view of salvation by works? God forbid! Cut out my tongue if I am.

But what I am doing, is trying to divest you of some popular conceptions and formulations of these things which are deeply unbiblical, and which have the net affect of giving false hope and assurance to people who have no right to feel so safe and secure, which have the net affect of anaesthetizing people who are drifting toward dangerous, life-threatening rocks. People who one day, if they do not give attention to these things, will find themselves shipwrecked with regard to the faith - which is exactly how Paul describes some people in his letters to Timothy. People who seemed to be going well, at one time, who seemed to have a promising future. But they drifted, and before they knew it, were upon the rocks.

Yes, friends, there is such a thing as assurance. Yes, God's people will persevere to the end. No, we are not saved by our works. But we are also not saved apart from works. We are not saved in a vacuum. The overwhelming evidence of the New Testament says that this is so. Some of the women of our church are currently going through a study of 1st John at the moment which, among many other things, makes this same point very clearly and very strongly.

Let me say this again, and in another way, just to make sure you do not miss it. There are all kinds of verses that point me to the security a person can and does have in Christ. But there is not a single verse that says, "In the end, Scott Lindsay will be saved." There are all kinds of verses about assurance and the confidence we can have. But there are no explicit verses that tie that directly to me, or to you.

There are, however, plenty of places that tie the reality of assurance indirectly to you and me. And the nature of that indirect connection is this: because being saved is about a transformation, a coming to life from the dead, an invasion of your heart and mind by the Holy Spirit of God - and not just about a mere declaration - then because of that, there will be evidence that confirms this in the lives of those for whom this is true.

That is what Hebrews is getting at here: The clinging tightly to what we have heard, the cherishing of it, and the faithful response to it - all of these things are evidence that should bolster our sense of assurance in the Lord. At the same time, for those who are not clinging tightly, who are neglecting the great salvation that has been offered them in Jesus - the longer that this is the case, the longer that they hold onto some cherished disobedience, the longer they continue to neglect the on-going demands of the Gospel of repentance and faith - the longer these things continue, then the more doubtful one ought to be about one's alleged standing in the Lord.

Does this mean Christians do not sin? Of course not. Does this mean that Christians do not struggle long and hard with particular, recurring sins? Absolutely not. But it does say something about the overall tenor and shape of a person's life. There is an orientation that is clearly God-ward and even though it is punctuated by struggle - even the struggle itself, and the way we engage in it a sure and strangely comforting sign of the reality of our new life in Christ.

Well, does this mean that we are reverting to the unhelpful practice of basing our justification upon our sanctification — that is, viewing the depth and constancy of God's mercy and love toward us through the day to day ups and downs of our inconsistent faithfulness - is that what I am suggesting? No. But I am suggesting that we nuance that, at least a little bit.

One person who has written on this very well is Tim Keller, a PCA pastor in New York. He says this,

Many [Christians] have a theoretical commitment to [the doctrine of justification by faith] , but in their day to day existence they rely on their sanctification for their justification - i.e., drawing their assurance of acceptance with God from their sincerity, their past experience of conversion, their recent religious performance or the relative infrequency of their conscious, willful disobedience. Few know enough to start each day with a thoroughgoing stand upon Luther's platform: you are accepted, looking outward in faith and claiming the wholly alien righteousness of Christ as the only ground of acceptance, relaxing in that quality of trust which will produce increasing sanctification as faith is active in love and gratitude....

Now, again, I think that Keller is absolutely right about these things. Indeed, we do not want to base our daily walk with the Lord or our sense of our standing in him upon our recent track records of obedience or disobedience. We do need to ground our assurance in the finished, completed work of Christ.

But even as we do these things, even though we do not base our understanding of who we are in Christ upon our recent track record of faithfulness or otherwise - that does not mean that we can ignore the overall, long-term shape that these things have taken and are taking in our lives. There are simply too many passages in books like Hebrews and 1st John and the Letter to James which give real warnings about real dangers. Here is where the nuance comes in.

Yes, we ought to start each day with that solid platform of saying to ourselves, as Keller has suggested: you are accepted and deeply loved by Christ and are securely in him because of what he has accomplished on your behalf. However, passages like what we have read in Hebrews this morning, and even stronger passages to come, say that while that is a good and right place for a person to begin their day, there comes a point for some people when starting out the day assuring yourself that you are accepted and loved begins to look less and less like a statement of fact, and more and more like a form of self-delusion from a person whose life has long drifted away from the things they have heard and who is dangerously close to complete shipwreck of their professed Christianity.

I say these things not to frighten you, brothers and sisters, but to do what this passage itself is doing - nothing more and nothing less. To warn you about the danger - the very real danger - of neglecting your salvation, and drifting away from the things you have heard.....

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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